California’s homeownership rate averaged 54.8% in 2019. This is slightly below the prior year and far below the 2006 peak, which reached a high of 60.7%. Expect California’s homeownership rate not to exceed 55% in the coming decade.

A low homeownership rate means a large population of renters. Is rental construction rising to meet today’s growing renter population?

Not quickly enough — the state’s rental vacancy rate remains below healthy levels, averaging 4.2% in 2019 and falling. In Q1 2020, California’s rental vacancy rate descended to a low 3.4%. In recent years, the narrow rental vacancy rate has contributed to quickly rising rents across the state. However, the coronavirus complications of 2020 have turned the rental market on its head, with tenants impacted by COVID-19 and its economic consequences unable to move or pay rent. Tenant protections to keep residents housed during this unprecedented time have halted evictions, ensuring the rental vacancy rate will remain low in the months ahead.

Updated June 16, 2020. Original copy posted July 2010.

Chart 1

Chart update 06/16/20

2019 2006: Peak year of homeownership
1989: 30-year homeownership low
Homeownership rate

Chart 2

Chart update 06/16/20

2019 2018 2017
Rental vacancy rate

California’s current state of homeownership

California’s homeownership rate is historically around 10 percentage points below the national homeownership rate (at 65% at the end of 2019). This is due to a combination of factors; including the lesser impact the national policy of pushing the “American Dream” of homeownership has had on more mobile, free-spirited Californians.

California’s rate of homeownership has declined dramatically since the 2008 recession, a full six percentage point drop since its peak year of 2006.

In a non-recession market, homeownership rates drop as interest rates move upward to cool the economy, as reflected in the rate of homeownership during the late 1950s through the early 1980s. Chart 1 displays the generally unacknowledged converse relationship between the average 30-year mortgage rate and the homeownership rate (and home price trends) from early 1980 until 2006, when the upward ride of the Millennium Boom began to reverse course.

However, due to our bumpy plateau recovery brought on by the financial crisis, after 2007 both mortgage and homeownership rates have dropped in tandem. Today, the homeownership rate is mostly stable, at around 54%, a correction of the effects of irresponsible lending during the Millennium Boom (not the fault of FHA, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, but Wall Street bond market independence).

Further, the Federal Reserve (the Fed) kept interest rates low the past several years to coax homebuyers out of the woodwork (since Congress has failed to do so) by continuing to supply money to mortgage lenders at literally zero interest. However, in late 2016 the 30-year mortgage rate began to rise, as it did in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and with that move, the homeownership rate will continue to lose strength before it fully stabilizes.

Looking back for a look forward

California’s homeownership rate demonstrated an upward trend from the 1970s until peaking in 2006. This long-term increase and the following crash were due to a variety of economic factors.

During the past 30 years, interest rates were in a continual state of decline, reaching their all-time low today.

Over the next 25 years or so, interest rates will rise, inhibiting homeownership growth.

As demonstrated in Chart 1, the Fed intentionally raises short-term interest rates to induce a business recession when the economy is over-performing. The effects usually take hold in two to three years. More precisely, the recession sets in around 12 months after short-term rates rise above long-term rates. This cyclical action has occurred periodically since WWII, until the early 2000s, when the Fed skipped the second phase of this action due to the events of September 11.

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Just as the recession’s magic was removing inefficiencies in the economy, fiscal and monetary moves post-9/11 led directly to the Millennium Boom. In the boom, as aided and abetted by financial deregulation, low-tier home prices were artificially driven to a three-fold high. A new real estate paradigm was prematurely declared in which prices would go up and up forever, in defiance of economic principles. Bond rating agencies, properly induced by Wall Street Bankers, fully endorsed the concept. Of course, this false paradigm came crashing down in 2007, which resulted in the most significant U.S. recession since the Great Depression.

Buyers need jobs

While California finally returned to pre-recession job numbers at the end of 2014, enough jobs have yet to be created to keep up with the intervening population increase of working-age individuals.

It will take until about 2019 to reach the percentage of California’s population employed in 2007, since we experienced a nearly 10% population increase from 2007 through 2016. This factor will be to the single family residence (SFR) builders’ delight.

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Jobs move real estate

Apart from the effects of various economic factors, the evolving societal mores of the younger generation (Generation Y (Gen Y)) show an increasing tendency towards renting, rather than owning, one’s shelter.

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The fate of suburbia

The rental alternative

In lieu of homeownership, potential homebuyers will take advantage of their only other option: renting. Often they will occupy detached SFRs, currently the playground for ownership among many industrious buy-to-let investors.

The rental activity of would-be homeowners forced to be tenants will be one of the driving forces increasing rental occupancy rates for the short term. City councils, however, will not likely permit the construction of high-rise, high-density multi-family units required to keep rents stable. Without proper zoning, rents will increase enough to cause a shift in housing preference to homeownership of SFRs. Then it will be back to suburban sprawl all over again.

Empty units do not indicate lack of tenants

Logic dictates that any large decrease in California homeownership should lead to a correspondingly large increase in demand for rental housing. But the builder response to this demand has been held back to a combination of difficulty securing credit and strict zoning regulations limiting density. Multi-family construction in 2019 was slightly down from the prior year, continuing the decline in 2020.

As the growing occupancy-aged population combines with the nascent job-market recovery, the potential demand we see will be realized, producing a sharp rebound in the builders’ market for apartments. For the moment, however, rental housing is not scarce, particularly in the inland communities. No reason exists to expect any overall scarcity within two or three years.

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CA single- and multi-family housing starts

Are rentals a passing trend, or a permanent change?

A long time remains before homeownership levels hit bottom in California, and homeownership will not begin any measureable resurgence from that bottom level until at least 2018. In this decade, rental property will become the new standard; the only alternative to traditional homeownership (with the rare exceptions of homelessness, motor homes, boats and cars).

Less risky than traditional homeownership, renting is poised to fill the gap left by foreclosure for families who will need to relocate. Many families hit with foreclosure are now unable to qualify for a purchase-assist mortgage to buy another home, and many more are simply disillusioned with the financial facts of homeownership. Once burned, they are hesitant to put themselves back into what they now perceive as a combustible situation.

But are rentals the wave of the future, or will the population and the government return to pushing single family homeownership when pocketbooks and anxieties finish recovering from the worst of the recession’s pain? The answers will not be determined by current or former homeowners, but by the large new generation of potential homebuyers in Gen Y who are just beginning to come of age.

In the immediate future, first tuesday forecasts that the population will become increasingly centered in the cities, where jobs, culture and personal conveniences are ready at hand. California, which has always had a homeownership rate roughly 10% lower than the nation as a whole, will be especially susceptible to this trend.

For a mobile, contemporary and more youthful population like California’s, rentals will more often be the natural choice.

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